April 8, 2013

'Honor flight' takes aging Maine vets to visit D.C. war memorials

Eighteen of the 19 veterans involved in Sunday's trip were World War II veterans. And it didn't take long for the other visitors to notice the crew from Maine.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - After Richard Leighton was diagnosed with incurable cancer, the Westbrook resident made a "bucket list" with one deeply personal wish: to see his brother's name on the nation's Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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Maine state Rep. Lisa Villa, D-Harrison, talks Sunday with World War II veteran Bill Quackenbush, of Litchfield, at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Va. Quackenbush served as a gunner’s mate on a transport used by the Navy in the Normandy invasion.

Photo by Bill Clark

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Veteran Dorothea Washburn, of Harrison, points to the Maine pillar Sunday as the Honor Flight New England tour arrives at the World War II Memorial in Washington. Washburn served as a Navy storekeeper 1st Class at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Photo by Bill Clark

Additional Photos Below

FOR MORE INFIORMATION on the Honor Flight New England program, go to www.honorflightnewengland.org or call (877) 992-8387. Donations can be made to Honor Flight New England, P.O. Box 16287, Hooksett, N.H., 03106.

Leighton got that wish Sunday -- and so much more.

Unbeknownst to him or his son, Rick, the organizers of an "honor flight" program for aging veterans arranged for the pair to participate in a formal wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And on the wreath was Sgt. Raymond Leighton's name.

"When I saw his name on the white ribbon as it blew in the wind, I fell apart," Richard Leighton said afterward, his voice faltering.

Giving a terminally ill veteran a chance to honor his long-lost brother at one of the nation's most sacred military sites is one example of the ways that the coordinators of Honor Flight New England say they try to give back.

Since 2009, the New Hampshire-based nonprofit has paid to fly more than 700 veterans to Washington to visit the memorials dedicated to them and others who have served.

The vast majority of the participating veterans served in World War II, members of the "greatest generation" whose numbers are rapidly shrinking. And for many, it is their first -- and likely last -- trip to see the memorials in the nation's capital.

"This is very impressive. I had no idea," said 92-year-old Franklin Flanders, of Norway, Maine, as he strolled around the World War II Memorial with three generations of his family, who had driven down from Maine.

"I had heard about it and I've seen pictures of it, but it is nothing like being down here and seeing it," said Flanders, who served in the Army's demolition units during the grueling war in the Pacific.

Eighteen of the 19 veterans involved in Sunday's trip were World War II veterans. And it didn't take long for the other visitors to notice the crew from Maine in "WWII Vet" hats or other military apparel.

A small crowd began to gather and greet the honorees as soon as they began disembarking from the bus. The parade of wheelchairs drew even more attention as it converged in front of the "Freedom Wall" -- containing 4,000-plus gold stars, each representing 100 American lives lost during the war -- for pictures and a taps ceremony.

Afterward, strangers stopped to shake hands and talk to the veterans, many of whom appeared as moved by those gestures of thanks as they were by the memorials themselves.

"What thrilled both of us was how many people stopped and said, 'Thank you for your service,'" said Dorothea Washburn, a Harrison resident who served as a storekeeper and record keeper in the Navy Reserves during World War II. "That gets me here," she said, patting her heart.

The Honor Flight program began in 2005 in Ohio and now has affiliates around the country. Participating veterans do not pay for anything during the trip, although the "guardian" who accompanies them throughout the day must pay his or her own way. Every trip has more volunteers than veterans.

Joe Byron of Hooksett, N.H., started the New England chapter of the program in 2009 after being inspired by the World War II veterans that he encountered while working in law enforcement. With the ranks of those veterans shrinking rapidly, Byron said he wanted to give back something more. Sunday's trip was Honor Flight New England's 26th, but the first one originating from Maine.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Richard Leighton of Westbrook stares up at the name of his brother, Sgt. Raymond Leighton, engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Sunday. Leighton, who is terminally ill with cancer, was able to visit the memorial for the first time with Honor Flight New England, a nonprofit that flies veterans of World War II and other terminally ill veterans to Washington for free.

Photo by Kevin Miller / Washington Bureau Chief

click image to enlarge

Overcome with emotion, veteran Richard Leighton of Westbrook (at center in ballcap) hands over a memorial wreath bearing the name of his late brother, Sgt. Raymond Leighton, to a member of the honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on Sunday. Sgt. Leighton was killed in action in Vietnam. Coordinators of the program Honor Flight New England surprised Leighton and his son, Rick (at left) with the wreath-laying ceremony during a trip to Washington, D.C.

Photo by Kevin Miller / Washington Bureau Chief


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